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Q&A with Sarah Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers of "Fort Tilden"

After winning the special jury award for Best Narrative Feature, Fort Tilden saw a little bit of backlash from the critical public, many of them unconvinced that it was necessarily a deserving winner. But this can be expected of a noncommittal culture, more suited to complaining after the fact than making a decision. But this is neither here nor there (although I personally rather enjoyed the film) and the decision can be chalked up to the fact that a committee of only three are responsible for selecting the winners for any given category.

Regardless of this odd rocking of the boat that Fort Tilden has ushered, it's a wonderful picture of big city ineptitude. From our review,

"Unfit for a seemingly painless journey such as this, watching this odd couple mess their way through the "rough" spots of the city is co-writers and directors Sarah Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers' condemnation of an incomptent age of the e-tarded. Destitude without their iPhones, never able to look three steps into their futures and wholly lost without an aiding stranger, Allie and Harper are the bane of the millenials."

Fort Tilden is at its core an absurdist, girls running amuck in NYC dramedy and is the product of directorial duo Sarah Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers. Here to talk about millennials, discovering the actresses and getting naked at the beach, read on to see how Tilden came to be.


Can you talk a little bit about how you collaborate? How do you divide up all of the duties?

Sarah-Violet Bliss: There isn’t much division of our responsibilities. We sat at the computer next to each other writing all day. It wasn’t one of those, you write five pages and then show it to your partner. You have your every day, nine to five, writing jobs, and on the side, two people with the same thoughts, and also some different thoughts that would collaborate in a way that gave the film a voice of its own.

Charles Rogers: I don’t think it would have been possible to co-direct, without having co-written. I think the process was inseparable. In that way, we both knew what the vision for the film was, even though we might have had a different angle on it, they were angles that would inevitably come together. We both were always on the same page. Otherwise, I don’t know what it would have looked like.

Had you worked together before?

SVB: No. This was our first collaboration.

CR: We’ve been friends, but this was our first collaboration. Nine months ago, we didn’t even know necessarily that we were going to be making this film. We had the idea at the very beginning of the summer, and we wrote it in six weeks, and we produced in that amount of time.

I loved it. Obviously, you guys won, so it’s a great film. I laughed through the whole thing. You guys are older than millennials so how did you get in touch with your qualities of millenials? What do you think they are and how do you represent them?

SVB: I’m technically Generation-Y, but I think I’m friends with millenials. There’s a blend. I’m kind of on the cusp, so I feel like it wasn’t too hard to tap into that.

CR: A lot of it was stuff that we were thinking about in our own issues. Our own issues ended up working their way into the film and that’s sort of what’s hard in the writing process, if you know that going in to it or not. Also, just drawing from friends and people that we knew. We have a lot of friends who do absurd things and I guess there’s a particular kind of absurdity that comes with the millennial generation. That wasn’t hard to draw from, when it’s all around you.

Tell me a little about the production in New York. It looks great. Were you just stealing shots? What kind of channels did you go through and were there any challenges or tricks?

SVB: We tried to permit as much as possible. We had our things covered for a lot of it and then there were a lot of things that we had to steal. There’s always a lot of great stuff to put in front of the camera but that also comes with a lot of challenges.

CR: We met so many characters along the way. The type of people who would come up to me, they were always very specific to the kind of neighborhood that you were in. So the girls go on a journey from home and we sort of also went on a journey. There’s just a lot of different kinds of neighborhoods and every day was a different flavor because of that.

I was just wondering about the two actresses. Were they a comedy team?

SVB: They had never met before we cast them. Ally, the blonde, is one of my best friends from college and she’s been in a lot of my short films and we work together a lot. We discovered Bridy Eliot, who plays Harper, and we took them to dinner when she was in town and it was really good chemistry. We all really got along. They worked phenomenally together and hopefully they continue to. This was their first collab.

When you say you “discovered her,” how did you discover her?

CR: She was concussed on the side of the road and… Bridy Eliot is a comedian and performer in the Upright Citizens Brigade. It’s a major comedy theater in New York. She has a presence in the comedy world but she hasn’t really been in a lot of films. This is both their sort of break out role. It was great to find out on the first day that we cast right. We knew it going into it, because we felt, but when you’re on set there’s that first day where you’re nervous. Getting to see them perform on the first day was like, “We don’t have to worry about this!”

Do you guys want to talk a little bit about your background before you came to this film?

SVB: We both went to NYU grad film school together. We’re still there. That’s where I’ve been making my shorts, through film school. Before that, I was a theater major at Oberlin, which is where I met Claire. I’ve been writing plays and stuff for a really long time. After I graduated, I was actually more interested in film. I became more of a filmmaker than a playwright.

CR: I went to college here and then I went to grad school at NYU. I’m not from New York necessarily. I do a lot of comedy and improv and standup in New York, which is cool because I want to do a lot of comedy and I get to know a lot of the talent pool in New York. I feel like it’s nice when you can see all of your worlds coming together. I feel like this film did that for me.

What were the themes that were most important to you about this idea of challenging friendship or friendships that indicate more about the challenges that you have yourself with your actual relationship that you have with the other person? Were there certain ideas that you hoped would carry throughout the film?

CR: We were drawing from different life experiences. I think one part of the millennial generation – the idea of this age – is that you get to this point in your life where you start to evaluate all of your friendships. Before this point, your friendships are out of convenience or commonalities that are more trivial. And the older you get, you begin to sort of focus in on what’s important to you and what actually matters to you. You begin to realize that the people you thought mattered to you, there’s issues there. Before this age, I don’t think that you necessarily evaluate those things. I was drawing from some difficult relationships that I had, but also there were people that I love, and don’t want out of my life. All relationships are really hard.

SVB: The themes are stuff that we really discovered while writing and developing what we were writing originally. We thought it would be a funny idea to have two characters who were trying to get to Fort Tilden, except their not really good at stuff. As we were writing, we really discovered more of what was actually very compelling to us and about what it means to be 25 right now… and how the older generations, the parents of these millenials, feel like, “Oh you can be whatever you want to be.” And not really thinking about their responsibilities and pursuing that in a really hardworking way, just expecting that it’s going to happen. You get taken by surprise, when you realize that you’ve got to take some control over that.

Sounds like you might know some of these people.

SVB: Sure.

CR: Yeah.

You keep bringing up the comedic elements of this, but there was also a lot of drama to this story. Did it start out as a comedy and then you kind of found these dramatic beats? Or did it start out as more of a drama but then developed into a comedy?

SVB: The original idea we had was: “This is a funny idea.” All the work that I’ve done in my past at least – Charles too – there’s always some more dramatic depth to it. That’s what I think makes the comedy better and the drama better. They are opposites that flatter each other. Really it was just about making something truthful and making the story richer. We never were like, “This is a COMEDY.” It develops into what it develops into. That’s my favorite kind of work to create.

CR: I think the fact that it started with characters, rather than an idea about the tone or the genre, I think it got both funnier and sadder. I don’t think it necessarily started out as one or the other. The more we understood the comedy, the more we understood how that related to drama. I think that the fact that it gets sadder makes it funnier and the fact that it gets funnier makes it sadder. These characters, ultimately, are very flawed. The comedy comes from that, but also the struggle has to come from that too. So I think it sort of started in a simple place, then everything layered outside of that.

I love that they all had their tops off at the beach. I wondered who’s idea that was, or if they actually do that out there.

CR: It’s an unmonitored beach, so a lot of people do end up taking their tops off.

SVB: Knowing that that’s a place where people go to be cool and free or whatever, and then the idea that someone would be put in that situation and feel uncomfortable by feeling like that’s the cool decision to do.

CR: Our actresses were very comfortable with the toplessness. Everything was consensual.

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Talking with Jack Plotnick of "Space Station 76"

"Never give up, never surrender," Tim Allen famously chanted out in Galaxy Quest. "Live long and prosper," the wise Spock gently reinforced. "The force is with you," Ol' Ben loved to chime in every now and then. But it's the iconic words of a toy, "To infinity and beyond," that have come to describe the sci-fi space explorer mantra: that there are no limitations, no furthest reaches. But what if you were content just floating around space? Not conquering anything, not plotting any universe-saving diplomatic truces, not battling off malevolent, oddly-shaped aliens? That's the question Jack Plotnik asks in his endlessly funny Space Station 76 and the results are blisteringly good.

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Talking With the Zellner Bros of "Kumiko The Treasure Hunter"

This may not be the Zellner Brother's first rodeo but it's likely to be the one to put them on the map. In addition to acting in small supporting roles across a sprawl of independent features, David and Nathan Zellner have stirred up a tight knit circle of fandom with their earlier works Goliath and Kid Thing that have gone on to tilt their filmography in new and interesting circles. But neither of those features quite inspired the near unanimous support that Kumiko the Treasure Hunter has and here to tell us about the process of turning an urban legend into a stunning feature film are the sibling twosome themselves.

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Director Hany Abu-Assad On His Oscar nominated Controversial Feature Omar

Palestinian director Hany Abu Assad’s controversial Oscar nominated feature Omar merges genres and uses flawed characters to dynamically illustrate the complex political realities between Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Born October 11th, 1961, in Nazareth, Israel, Abu-Assad was first nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2006 for his feature Paradise Now, about two Palestinian men preparing for a suicide attack in Israel. His 2013 film Omar was selected as the Palestinian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 86th Academy Awards, and then the 86th Academy Awards nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.

First seen locally as part of the 51st New York Film Festival, Omar screened in the Un Certain Regard section of the 2013 Cannes Film Festival where it won the Jury Prize and then was shown at lat year’s Toronto International Film Festival. It also won Best Feature Film at the 2013 Asian Pacific Screen Awards.

The 45 year-old director came to the idea of the film in one night, writing its story structure in four hours and completing the script in four days. After a year of financing — which brought in an American based Palestinian owned production company -- filming began near the end of 2012 and was shot mainly in Nazareth, Nablus and the Far’a refugee camp.

The film focuses on Palestinian baker Omar (Adam Bakri) who routinely scales the wall that separates Israel from the West Bank to meet up with girlfriend Nadja (Leem Lubany). He also styles himself a freedom fighter — or a terrorist depending on the interpretation — ready to attack the Israeli army with childhood friends Tarek (Eyad Hourani) and Amjad (Samer Bisharat). After the killing of an Israeli soldier, he’s arrested, cajoled into admitting some guilt by association, and forced work as an informant.

Not only he is faced with having to betray his cause or play his Israeli handler (Waleed F. Zuaiter) and face 90 years in jail and risk the safety of his family. He’s forced to question who he can trust on either side. In either case the likely conclusion is a tragedy of one kind or another not unlike what is happening in the region daily.

This Q&A was garnered from a roundtable held in New York hotel this February.

Q: This is a different story from your other films — what prompted that?

HA: One day I was about to shoot The Courier, a film I made here, and felt like it’s not going to be a good movie. I wanted to escape, well not escape, but survive the project. I remember waking up at 4 o’clock in the morning sweating in a panic and I was thinking, “Oh my God, I need a project I can rely on after The Courier. Think!” And I came up with this movie in four hours. The whole structure was thought up from 8 o’clock to where I wrote the last scene.

Q: This film has a coming-of-age aspect to it.

HA: It’s so funny, almost everything in the movie was from those four hours. It had to be a love story, but the characters had to be young: otherwise it wouldn’t be believable or pathetic. It has to be a coming-of-age story or you don’t believe why they’re like this.
omar director twoWhat happens to me in panic is like when a mother sees her daughter under a car  and is suddenly stronger than the car. Panic will let you think very sharply, and all your knowledge will be very well used.

Q: Is this a genre-film-slash-suspense story?

HA: I love thrillers and really wanted to use that genre in a different way to tell a love story. I was interested in three different traditions. For Americans, the thriller contains the meat of the story. The French are more interested in the inner conflict of the character and concentrate on the inner tension through closeups and wide shots but not the tension in the story.

The thrillers of the Egyptians are different from Western thrillers, because whether it’s French or American, to keep the tension high the characters are almost inhuman. They don’t go to the bathroom because it’s a waste of time. They don’t eat or tell jokes.

However, the Egyptians succeeded in making thrillers with human characters. They’re funny; they tell jokes; but it’s still tense. That felt like what would happen if I took the meat of an American thriller like No Way Out or The Firm, the mystique of French thrillers like Le Samourai and the humanity of an Egyptian thriller like There Is a Stranger in Our House and come up with something original. This was my experiment in the thriller genre. In answer to your question yes, it is a combination of a coming-of-age story with a genre thriller.

Q: You strike a good political balance with Omar.

HA: I love the kind of movies that challenge my thoughts of right and wrong. I love movies that challenge my moral judgement or any judgement, political or otherwise. And consciously I do movies that resemble what I like.

Q: You had complete creative control. What did you achieve here that you didn’t in the past?

HA: In everything there is a limitation and a price. Indeed I had my artistic freedom, but I had a lot of limitations of resources. You pay a price for everything. As a filmmaker you always want to explore new ventures. I have the luxury of choosing the light and lenses; I want to meet mainstream expectations, or do a film I’m happy with 100% and fuck luxury.

Q: The casting director did a great job.

HA: It’s true, I have to give her credit. She was the only casting director available, so we didn’t have a choice. But she’s the best. She worked with other good filmmakers and she had a good record. You know how it works.

Casting directors bring you tons of options and you see their pictures and videos. And from the thousands you pick hundreds that you actually meet. And from the hundred you bring back 20 for another test, and from 20 you reduce them to five. It’s a process of testing, testing all the time. Because I use an invisible style, the style of the movie doesn’t draw attention to itself. It says to the audience: here’s your character; live with him or her.

The actor becomes the most important element in the movie because his emotions and believability lets you live with him or not. That’s why during casting I’m very careful and bring an actor back many times, testing him again and again until I choose. Then I rehearse a lot because that’s when I have the luxury to change things without the pressure of shooting. When I’m shooting it’s just pushing them in a direction I want, but also letting them go because we did a very careful process of casting and rehearsal.

Q: There seems to be a general renaissance of Middle Eastern cinema…

HA: I hope so. This is up to you to decide. This gives me a good feeling. The Middle East deserves attention since it’s been neglected, not because there’s no talent but because it was a truly political decision to neglect them. When the mainstream neglects them, this multiplies the effect.

Q: Have Palestinians seen this film?

HA: Yes, and most of the reactions were excellent there. I feel it succeeded because I don’t want to make a film just for sophisticated audiences or festivals like Cannes. I really want to do a movie for the people and for my mother to understand and enjoy.

For sure there will be people who don’t like the movie and that’s all right. How many times have I admired directors who they have done a movie I didn’t like? It’s nothing personal; it’s your right not to like a movie.

Q: What did your mother say?

HA: She loved it more than Paradise Now. She thought it was a compelling story.

Q: What was the reaction in Israel?

HA: It was mixed, though I have to say it was mostly positive and I was really surprised. I was thinking there would be more hostile reactions. The hostile reactions were based on political ideals, not the quality of the movie. It doesn’t matter what I think politically. Take The Godfather. Politically [the Godfather character] is very wrong, but it doesn’t matter, you appreciate the film.

After seeing the movie, crime is still crime, but you appreciate that it challenges your ideas. You appreciate it so much because you felt sympathy for someone you would never feel sympathy for in reality. I tell everybody: we can discuss politics, but movies are about emotional involvement with characters you can’t connect with in reality. The reactions from the Israelis was mostly good. Some dismiss it for political reasons.

Q: What do you think of the new peace proposals?

HA: I am optimistic. Every conflict will end. Endless conflict does't exist. Whether it’s tomorrow or after a year I can’t judge, but I am optimistic we are on our way to solve this problem.

Q: Have you seen the Oscar-nominated documentary The Act of Killing?

HA: I loved it. It was an opportunity for me was to [learn] about mass murder and killing for joy — they’re real, not actors. When do we have the opportunity to talk to mass murderers? It doesn’t exist. This movie gave me the opportunity to hear them. The act of killing is still killing but to see them as a human being is amazing.

Q: Are you excited about your upcoming award adventures in LA?

HA: It’s funny, because I had this experience before and you live with the attention for months and weeks. Every day the attention increases and increases. The first time it was fun and because it’s the first time, the disappointment was really heavy because you hear someone else’s name and you are disappointed whether you like it or not. Because I know the taste of disappointment I’m like, “Oh no I have to go through this again!”

I’m traumatized specially because we have a really tough competition. All the films I’ve seen are really good, I would vote for all of them. There’s not one where I said, “No I can not choose this movie.” It’s a very tough year. This is why I feel like I have to go through this. The Oscar [competition] is so tense for everybody. Your legs bend because of the tension. It’s a show you have to go through this.

Q: Do you want to do a TV series given the success of such shows as Homeland?

HA: I am thinking about it seriously. I can’t tell you now, but I am working on something.

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